This blogpost summarizes some of the main points from the book titled Numbers Don’t Lie written by Vaclav Smil

What happens when we have fewer children ?

  • The total number of births from a single mother could exceed 24 live births.
    • 300-400 ovulations during 38 years of fertile span of a woman
    • Every pregnancy precludes 10 ovulations and an additional 5-6 ovulations have to be subtracted for each pregnancy, due to the reduced chance of conception
    • 15 ovulations per pregnancy over 300 -400 ovulations translates to 24 live births
  • Total Fertility rate is the number of children born per woman during her lifetime.
  • The replacement level of fertility is that which maintains a population at a stable level. It is about 2.1, with the additional fraction needed to make up for girls who will not survive into fertile age
  • Regional high fertilities guarantee that nearly 75% of all births during the 50 years between 2020 and 2070 will be in Africa

The best indicator of quality of life ? Try Infant Mortality

  • Since 1990, the most common alternative has been to use the Human Development Index, a multivariate measure constructed in order to provide a better yardstick than GDP. It combines life expectancy at birth and educational achievements wit Gross national income per capita
  • One of the best choices to do comparisons of quality of life is infant mortality - the number of deaths during the first year of life that take place per 1000 live births
  • Infant mortality rates in 1850 was around 200. By 1950, it came down to 33-65. By 2020, it has come down to below 5 in affluent countries
  • Infant mortality rate is a more discerning indicator of quality of life than the income average or the HDI
  • Infant mortality rates in a dozen of Sub-Saharan nations is above 60, equal to that of western Europe a 100 years ago

The best return on investment: Vaccination

  • Today the standard practice everywhere is to inoculate children with a pentavalent vaccine that cost less than a dollar
  • For every dollar invested in vaccination, $16 is expected to be saved in health care costs and the lost wages and lost productivity caused by illness and death.

Why it`s difficult to predict how bad a pandemic will be while it is happening

  • Issues with computing fatality rate where the numerator is often known with certainty whereas the denominator value is noisy. Depending on what you choose as the denominator, the fatality rates could be vastly different
  • A better metric is the one that talks about the death cases per 1000 people
  • Flu consumes 22k deaths from the infected cases of 38 million - 0.6 deaths per 1000 people infected. Infected are 12% of the population
  • Based on the numbers as on [2022-06-29 Wed], there were 6.3 million deaths from 544 million cases world wide. 11 deaths per 1000 people infected. Infection rate is 7%

Growing Taller

  • People in most of the nations across the world have grown taller in the 20th century
  • According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) growth reference standards, the expected average height of a woman should be 163 cm (5 ft 4.3 in) and the average height of a man 176.5 cm (5 ft 9.5 in)
  • Which nation has the tallest citizens? For males, the record holders are the Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Latvia and Denmark. For females it is Latvia, the Netherlands, Estonia, Czech Republic and Serbia
  • Milk has been a key growth factor

Is life expectancy finally topping out ?

  • Records available for the 20th century show two distinct periods of rising longevity: faster linear gains (about 20 years in half a century), prevailed until 1950, followed by slower gains
  • In 1850, the combined life expectancies of men and women stood at around 40 years in the US, Canada, Japan and much of Europe. Since them, the values have followed an impressive and almost perfectly linear increase that saw them nearly double. Women live longer in all societies, with the current maximum at just above 87 years in Japan
  • The world record lifespan is 122 years. The second oldest person dies at 119, in 1999

How sweating improved hunting ?

  • A quadruple can take only a single breath per locomotive cycle buy humans have more flexibility
  • Humans have a great ability to regulate body temperature by sweating
  • The two large animals we have mainly used for transport perspire profusely compared to other quadrupeds: in one hours, a horse can lose about 100 grams of water per square meter of skin, and a camel can lose up to 250 g per square meter
  • A human being can easily shed 500 g/square meter enough to remove 550 and 600 watts worth of heat.
  • Humans are superstars of sweating
  • We have another advantage when we lose water: we don’t have to make up the deficit instantly. Humans can tolerate considerable temporary dehydrate providing that we rehydrate in a day or so.
  • In the race of life, we humans are neither the fastest nor the most efficient. But thanks to our sweating capability, we are certainly the most persistent

How many people did it take to build the Great Pyramid ?

  • Great Pyramid was built nearly 4600 years ago. Its original height is about 146.6 m
  • Author’s estimate is 7000 workers

Why unemployment figures do not tell the whole story ?

  • Numbers may not life but the individual perception of them differ
  • Total unemployment rate is just one of the six different methods used by Bureau of Labor Statistics to quantify “labor underutilization”

What makes people happy ?

  • It is very difficult to explain the happiness index published by World Happiness Report. The scores are based on an individual’s own assessment of their life and are based on six variables
  • Finnish countries do not show a negative correlation with suicide rates
  • Score being reported to a third decimal looks weird

Rise of Mega Cities

  • Mega city - a city that exceeds 10 million people
  • In 1800, less than 2 percent of the world’s population lived in cities; by 1900 the share was still only about 5 percent. By 1950 it had reached 30 percent, and 2007 became the first year when more than half of humanity lived in cities. By 2016, the United Nations’ comprehensive survey found 512 cities with a population greater than 1 million, with 45 of them larger than 5 million and 31 surpassing 10 million
  • Groundbreaking new mapping research released this week at World Urban Forum 10 concludes that there are around 10,000 cities worldwide
  • 60% of the world’s population lives in cities
  • Cities generate 80% of world’s GDP
  • Population of Tokyo, the world’s largest mega city is 14 million in 2021

The First World War`s extended tragedies

  • Single out the momentous innovation that allowed a blockaded Germany to endure its two-front war for four years - the synthesis of ammonia
  • By 1913, Germany had commercialized the process of producing synthetic ammonia
  • Instead of synthetic ammonia used for producing fertilizers, it was used to produce war explosives that were used in World War - I

Is the US really exceptional ?

  • On all the four counts relating to life, death, education and happiness levels, US scores the worst
  • Infant mortality in US is 6 out of every 1000, whereas it is 4 in France, 3 in Germany and 2 in Japan
  • Life expectancy is 70 and not even ranks among the top two dozen countries worldwide
  • Education wise, based on PISA scores, it ranks just below Russia, Slovakia and Spain, but far lower than Canada, Germany and Japan
  • Obesity wise, it ranks first in the world with 30% of the population obese

Why Europe should be more pleased with itself ?

  • EU has just over 450 million people, less than 6% of the global population, but it generates 20% of world’s economic output, as against almost 25% for the US. It accounts for nearly 15% of global exports of goods.
  • Half of its 27 countries are among the top 3 countries in terms of quality of life

Brexit Realities that matter most will not change

  • In 2018, manufacturing accounted for 9% of the British GDP, compared to 10% in Canada, 11% in US , 19% in Japan, 21% in Germany and 27% South Korea. It has become more or less a deindustrialized society
  • The country’s old age dependency ratio is at 32% in 2020 and will increase to 47% by 2050. Dependency ratio is the number of people over 65 and older as a share of all economically active people (20-64 years of age)
  • UK has become: an aging nation; a deindustrialized and worn-out country whose per capital GDP is now over half of the Irish mean

Concerns about Japan`s Future

  • Japan is not only the world’s fastest-aging major economy, its population is also declining
  • Every fourth person is older than 65 in 2020
  • BY 2050, 40 out of 100 people will be older than 65
  • 127 million population in 2015 will shrink to 97 million by 2050
  • On 29 December 1989, Japan’s Nikkei stock market index hit a high of 38,916, a milestone that proved to be the last hurrah of the country’s asset-inflated bubble economy – a period of ostentatious consumption and overconfidence in the infallibility of Japan, Inc. Till date([2022-06-29 Wed]) Nikkei has never recovered to this level
  • Japanese government has been trying to find some way out - but radical reforms are not easy in a gerrymandered country that still cannot seriously contemplate even moderate scale immigration and that is yet to make real peace with its neighbors

How far can China go ?

  • According to WHO, the maximum acceptable level of particulates with diameters under 2.5 nanometers is 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air, but many Chinese cities have repeatedly exceeded 500 micrograms per cubic meter
  • Ratio of economically active to economically dependent people peaked in 2010
  • China has less arable land per capital than India
  • China’s GDP per capita is $20k
  • Compare the Japan of 1990, whose rise appeared to challenge the entire Western world, with the Japan of 2020, after 30 years of economic stagnation. This is perhaps the best insight into the likely contrast between the China of 2020 and that of 2050

India vs. China

  • Infant mortality rate in India is 30/1000 whereas it is 7.4 /1000
  • Life expectancy rates are comparable - 70 in India and 77 in China
  • Nominal GDP of China is 5 times that of India (14T vs 3T)
  • Since 2012, China’s dependency ratio - the number of people of working age divided by the number of those who are too young or too old to work has been rising (40%). The question is whether the country will become old before it can become truly rich

Why manufacturing remains important ?

  • Between 2000 and 2017, the worldwide value of manufactured products has more than doubled, from 6.1T to 13.2T
  • Manufacturing sector’s contribution to global GDP has declined from 25 percent in 1970 to less than 16 percent in 2017
  • China accounted for 30% of world’s manufacturing output in 2018 - $4T
  • US accounted for 17% of world’s manufacturing output in 2018 - $2.2T
  • Manufacturing sector contributed about 30% of China’s GDP whereas it contributed to only 12% of US GDP
  • If you rank countries by per capita manufacturing value, then Germany comes out at the top with $10k among the big 4 - US, China, Germany and Japan
  • The global leader in the countries ranked by per capital manufacturing value is Ireland - 25k USD

Russia and the USA: How things never change

  • Decisive moment of start or rivalry was the launch of Sputnik in 1957

Receding empires: Nothing new under the Sun

  • Analysis of lifespans of 41 ancient empires : mean duration was 220 years and the distribution is highly skewed, with those empires enduring at least 200 years being roughly six times as common as those surviving for eight centuries.

How the 1880s created our modern world ?

  • the most inventive time in human history was the 1880s
  • 1882 - first central electricity station
  • 1883 - cash register
  • 1883 - coin operated vending machine
  • 1884 - four stroke internal combustion engine
  • 1885 - Coco-Cola formulated
  • 1886 - Ballpoint pen patented
  • 1887 - first practical electric street
  • 1888 - revolving door introduced
  • 1889 - wall street journal first published

How electric motors power modern civilization ?

  • Rudimentary DC motors date back to the 1830s, when Thomas Davenport of Vermont patented the first American motor and used it to run a printing press
  • Nikola Tesla set up a company of his own to develop a motor that could run on Alternating Current
  • Electric motors are truly indispensable energizers of modern civilization
  • Today, some 12 billion small nonindustrial motors are sold every year, including about 2 billion tiny DC devices

Transformers - the unsung silent, passive devices

  • The theoretical foundation of a transformer was laid in the early 1830s by Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry
    • They showed that a changing magnetic field can induce a current of a higher voltage or a lower one
  • First transformer was exhibited in 1885
  • In 2016, the global output of smart phones alone was in excess of 1.8 billion units, each one supported by a charger housing a tiny transformer.
  • Transformer provides a complete and simple solution for a difficult problem. It so puts to shame all mechanical attempts at regulation. It handles with such ease, certainty, and economy vast loads of energy that are instantly given to or taken from it. It is so reliable, strong and certain. In this mingled steel and copper, extraordinary forces are so nicely balances as to be almost unsuspected

Why you shouldn`t write diesel off yet

  • Rudolf Diesel has the patent for the diesel engine
  • Today’s diesel engines remain at least 15 to 20 percent more efficient than their gasoline fueled rivals
  • In European Union, about 40% of all passenger cars are diesels but in the US diesel account for just 3%
  • Rudolf Diesel’s initial hope was to see small engines used primarily by small, independent producers as tools of industrial decentralization, but more than 120 years later, the very opposite is true. Diesels are the uncontested enablers of massively centralized industrial production and the irreplaceable prime movers of globalization
  • Diesel power virtually all container ships and all carriers of vehicles and bulk commodities
  • Diesel engines are here to say. There are no readily available mass mover alternatives that could keep integrating the global economy as affordably, efficiently and reliably as Diesel’s machines

Capturing motion - from horses to electrons

  • Eadweard Muybridge was hired by Stanford to settle an old dispute:whether all four of a horse’s legs are off the ground when running.
    • Developed a solution to capture moving objects with cameras capable of a shutter speed as brief as 1/1000 of a second
  • Muybridge’s 1000 frames a second soon became 10,000. By 1940, the patented design of a rotating mirror camera raised the rate to 1 million per second.
  • In 1999, Ahmed Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing a spectrograph that could capture the transition states of chemical reactions on a scale of femtoseconds, i.e. \(1/10^{-15}\)
  • Today, we can use intense ultrafast laser pulses to capture events separated by mere attoseconds

From the phonograph to streaming

  • The phonograph( a device for the mechanical recording and reproduction of sound) was born out of the telegraph and telephone.
  • US sales of LPs peaked in 1978, compact cassettes did so a decade later, and then CDs - introduced in 1984 - peaked in 1999. Those sales were cut in half just seven years later, and they are now surpassed by music downloads, including free wireless streaming

Inventing integrated circuits

  • In 1958, Jack S Kilby of Texas Instruments came up with the idea of integrated circuits
  • In 1959, Robert Noyce came up a similar idea but that was workable
  • By 1971, basic integrated circuits has matured into simple microprocessors with thousands of components, which then advanced to designs that made personal computing affordable, starting in mid 1980s.
  • By 2003, the component total has surpassed 100 million
  • By 2015 it reached 10 billion transistors
  • The 3rd Generation Intel® Core processor — quad core, contains 1.48 billion transistors. If transistors were people, Intel’s chip has transistors almost equal to the population of China at approximately 1.3 billion people.

Moore`s Curse: Why technical progress takes longer than you think ?

  • In 1965, Gordon Moore noted that the complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. Over the longer term, the doubling rate settled at about two years, or an exponential growth rate of 35% a year
  • Energy, material and transportation fundamentals that enable the functioning of modern civilization and that circumscribe its scope of action are improving steadily but slowly. Gains in performance mostly range from 1.5 to 3 % a year, as do the declines in cost
  • Outside the microchip dominated world, innovation simply does not obey Moore’s law, proceeding at rates that are lower by an order of magnitude

The rise of data: Too much too fast

  • Shakespeare’s plays and poems in their entirety amount to 5 MB, the equivalent of just a single high-resolution photograph, or of 30 seconds of high fidelity sound, or of 8 seconds of streamed high definition video
  • It is estimated that world will have 160 zettabytes(\(10^{21}\) bytes) of information by 2050
  • In 2020, about 1.7 MB of data is being generated per second for every one of the world’s nearly 8 billion people
  • The highest prefix in the international system of units id yotta \(10^{24}\)
  • All printed material in the world is estimated to be 200 Petabytes \(200*10^{15}\) bytes

Being Realistic about Innovation

  • Modern societies are obsessed with innovation.
  • This uncritical genuflection before the altar of innovation is wrong on two counts
    • it ignore those big, fundamental quests that have failed after spending huge sums on research
    • It has little to say about why we so often stick to an inferior practice even when we know there’s a superior course of action
  • Examples of failed quests
    • fast breeder reactors
    • hydrogen powered cards
    • magnetic levitation trains
    • thermonuclear energy
  • Why do we keep imposing daylight saving time changes semiannually when we know they don’t really save anything ?
  • Commercial flights now take longer to board than during the 1970s despite the fact that there are faster than the current inefficient favorites.
  • Why do we measure the progress of economies by GDP ?
  • Human minds have many irrational preferences: we love to speculate about wild and crazy innovations but cannot be bothered to fix common challenges by relying on practical innovation waiting to be implemented. Why do we not improve the boarding f planes rather than delude ourselves with visions of hyperloop trains and eternal life ?

Why gas turbines are the best choice ?

  • In 1939, World’s first industrial gas turbine began to generate electricity in Switzerland
  • 1950 - There was no rush to install them, as the market was dominated by large coal-fired plants that generated the least expensive electricity
  • Positive black swan event in 1965: The great power blackout in the Northeastern USA changed many minds. Gas turbines could operate at full load within minutes. But rising oil and gas prices and a slowing demand for electricity prevented any rapid expansion of the new technology.
  • Shift came in 1980s
  • By 1990s, almost half of all new installed US electricity generating capacity was in gas turbines of increasing power, reliability and efficiency
  • Gas turbines are the ideal suppliers of peak power and the best backups for intermittent wind and solar generation.
  • The levelized cost of electricity for new capacities entering service in 2023 is forecast to be about \$60 per megawatt hour for coal-fired steam turbo generators with partial carbon capture, \$48/MWh for solar photovoltaics, \$40/MWh for onshore wind - but less than \$30 MWh for conventional gas turbines and less than $10/MWh for combined cycle gas turbine
  • No other combustion machines combine so many advantages as do modern gas turbines.

Nuclear electricity - an unfulfilled promise

  • reactor construction began to accelerate during the late 1960s and by 1977 more than 10 % of the US electricity came from fission, rising to 20 percent by 1991.
  • In 2018, nuclear power provided the highest share of electricity in France(72%), 50% in Hungary, Swiss reactors contributed to 38% , just below 20% in US
  • The failure part has to do with unmet expectations
  • Western public remains unconvinced, electricity-generating companies are wary, Germany and Sweden are on course to shutting down entire industries, and even France plans to cut back
  • Nuclear electricity share peaked at 18% in 1996 and then fell to 10% by 2018 and is expected to bump up to just 12% in 2040

Why you need fossil fuels to get electricity from wind

  • Wind turbines are pure embodiments of fossil fuels
  • If wind-generated electricity were to supply 25% of global demand by 2030, then even with a high average capacity factor of 35% the aggregate installed wind power of about 2.5TW would require roughly 450 million tons of steel
  • A lot of energy goes in to making steel. To make the steel required for wind turbines that might operate by 2030, you would need fossil fuels equivalent to 600 million tons of coal, 90 million tons of crude oil.
  • Wind turbine will be able to generate as much energy as it took to produce it but the problem is that many of the inputs that go in to making wind turbine have no non-fossil substitutes
  • For a long time to come - until all energies used to produce wind turbines and photo-voltaic cells come from renewable energy sources- modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels

How big can a wind turbine be ?

  • In 2020, MHI Vestas Offshore Wind’s V164 can generate up to 10 megawatts
  • There is a challenge in implementing the ambitious designs made by various firms
  • Realizing a wind turbine that can generate up to 50 megawatts is at least 15 or 20 years away

The slow rise of photovoltaics

  • Edmond Becquerel first discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1839
  • The cost of PV was about $300 per watt and that came down to just 8-12 cents per watt by 2019
  • PV cells have higher power density than any other form of renewable energy conversion
  • By 2000, global PV generation supplied less than 0.01 percent of global electricity; a decade later, the share rose by an order of magnitude to 0.16 percent and by 2018i it stood at 2.2 percent
  • PV cells might be generating 10% of the world’s electricity by 2030

Why sunlight is still best

  • You can roughly track the advance of civilization by the state of its lighting - above all, its power, cost and luminous efficacy
  • luminous efficacy of visible light peaks at 683 lm/W at a wavelength of 555 nanometers
  • The theoretical limit for bright white LEDs is about 300 lm/W, but commercially available lamps are still a long way from achieving that rate
  • Phillips sells LEDs in US that offers a luminous efficacy of 89 lm/W
  • Light efficacies of artificial sources have improves by two orders of magnitude since 1880 - but replicating sunlight indoors still remains beyond our reach

Why we need bigger batteries ?

  • Since 2007, more than half of humanity has lived in urban areas
  • By 2050, more than 6.3 billion people will live in cities, accounting for two-thirds of the global population
  • If an Asian megacity is hit by a typhoon for a day or two, it would need many gigawatt-hours from storage to tide over until intermittent generation could be restored.
  • Lithium-ion batteries are today’s storage workhorses in both stationary and mobile applications. The largest storage system till date can generate 400 megawatt-hours is still two orders of magnitude lower than what a large Asian city would need if deprived of its intermittent supply
  • Most of the other options to store power are also inadequate. Perhaps the best long-term hope is to utilize cheap solar electricity to decompose water by electrolysis and use the produced hydrogen as a multipurpose fuel, but such a hydrogen-based economy is not imminent.
  • Pumped storage, a technology that was introduced in 1890s, accounts for more than 99 percent of the world’s storage capacity. However it entails energy loss on the order of 25%.
  • Many pumped storage installations have short-term capacities in excess of 1 gigawatt - the largest one is about 3 gigawatts and more than one would be needed for a megacity completely dependent on solar and wind generation.
  • The need for more compact, more flexible, larger-scale, less costly electricity storage is self-evident. But the miracle has been slow in coming.

Why electric container ships are a hard sail ?

  • Don’t write off the giant diesel-powered container ships and their critical role in the globalized economy
  • The twenty-foot equivalent unit (abbreviated TEU or teu) is an inexact unit of cargo capacity, often used for container ships and container ports. It is based on the volume of a 20-foot-long (6.1 m) intermodal container, a standard-sized metal box which can be easily transferred between different modes of transportation, such as ships, trains, and trucks.The container is defined by its length, although the height is not standardized and ranges between 4 feet 3 inches (1.30 m) and 9 feet 6 inches (2.90 m), with the most common height being 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 m).It is common to designate a 45-foot (13.7 m) container as 2 TEU, rather than 2.25 TEU.
  • In 1960s, ships used to carry a few hundred TEUs
  • In 2019, ships from MSC Switzerland hold a record of 23,756 TEU
  • Typically a ship can travel 21000 km in 30 days
  • Today’s best electric powered ship can travel only 30 nautical miles. Today’s state of art diesel containers can carry nearly 200 times as many boxes over distances almost 400 times as long, at speeds three to four times as fast as the pioneering electric ship can handle
  • To have an electric ship whose batteries and motors weighed no more than the fuel and the diesel engine in today’s large container vessels, we would need batteries with an energy density more than 10 times as high as today’s best Lithium-ion units. In the past 70 years, the energy density of the best commercial batteries hasn’t even quadrupled

The real cost of electricity

  • The average price of US residential electricity fell from $4.81 per kilowatt-hour in 1902 to 12.7 cents per kilowatt hour in 2017
  • The US has cheaper residential electricity than any affluent nation with the exception of Canada and Norway
  • The falling cost of photovoltaic cells and the highly competitive pricing of wind turbines are surprisingly making electricity costlier in many countries

The inevitably show pace of energy transitions

  • In 1800 - 98% of the world’s primary energy came from biomass fuels, mostly from wood and charcoal
  • In 1900, biomass represented half of the world’s primary energy
  • In 1950, biomass represented 1/3 of the the world’s primary energy
  • In the beginning of 21st century, it declined to 12 percent
  • In 1992, fossil fuels provided 86.6 percent of world’s primary energy. By 2017, they supplied 85%
  • Can a marginal slip of 1.5% in a quarter-century be followed in the coming 24-30 years with the substitution of some 80% of world’s primary energy for non-carbon alternatives, in order to come close to zero fossil carbon by 2050 ?
  • Only 27% of world’s final energy consumption is electricity
  • Several key economic sectors depend heavily on fossil fuels and we do not have any non carbon alternatives that could replace them rapidly and on the requisite massive scales
  • Displacing 10 billion tons of fossil carbon is a fundamentally different challenge than ramping up the sales of small portable electronic devices to more than a billion units a year

Shrinking the journey across the Atlantic

  • In 1838, it took 18 days to travel across the Atlantic
  • In 1844, tech advances brought it down to 8 days
  • Steam more than halved the transatlantic travel time and new records kept coming
  • In 1952, it took about 3 days
  • Commercial piston engine aircraft crossed in 14 or more hours
  • Boeing 787 Dreamliner cruises at 913 km/h, London- NewYork flights still last about 7.5 hours
  • Supersonic Concorde could do it in in 3.5 hours.
  • Compared to the time in 1838, we have cut the crossing time by 98%. Why do we need to further cut it down at such high energy cost ?

Engines are older than bicycles!

  • In 1817, Karl Drais, a forester in Germany’s grand duchy of Baden, demonstrated for the first time a “running machine”, that was the archetype of all later vehicles that required constant pedaling
  • Why did it take so long to come up with a means of propulsion that could make the bicycle a practical machine ?
    • Wooden parts were clumsy and cheap steel parts were not yet available
    • Pneumatic tires were not invented until that late 1880s
    • Urban incomes had to rise to afford it
  • In 1885, two British inventors began to offer their Rover safety bicycles
  • A simple balancing machine consisting of two equally sized wheels, a minimal metal frame, and a short drive chain emerged more than a century after Watt’s improved steam engine, more than a half a century after the introduction of mechanically far more complex locomotives, years after the first commercial generation of electricity
  • Bicycle design remained remarkably conservative between 1886 and 1976
  • The first purpose built mountain bikes came only in 1977

The Surprising story of inflatable tires

  • John Boyd Dunlop invented inflatable tires in 1888
  • Dunlop’s invention stimulated work on larger tires for the newly invented automobile.
  • Dunlop brand owned by Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company
  • Michelin is the second largest manufacturer of tires
  • Tires are quintessential products of the industrial age. Tire companies must meet the worldwide demand for nearly 100 million new road vehicles every year

When did the age of the car begin ?

  • 1908 Model T started the age of automobile
  • It costed 825 dollars in 1909 but continuous design and manufacturing improvements let Ford lower the price to 260 dollars by 1925
  • By 1927, when the production of Model T ended, the company had sold 15 million Model T’s
  • Volkswagen is the best selling vehicle in the history - 21 million

Modern cars have a terrible weight-to-payload ratio

  • The Ford Model T weighed but 1,200 pounds. With a 154-pound passenger on board, the resulting weight ratio was 7.7. The IEEE says that the average weight of all light-duty vehicles (including pickup trucks) is “more than 1,800 kilograms,” or 3,960 pounds. With the US Census Bureau finding that 76 percent of drivers commute alone, the weight ratio for that single 154-lb passenger comes out to 25.7, more than three times worse than the Model T’s figure
  • weight to payload ratios
    • 0.1 for a 7kg bicycle
    • 1.6 for a 110 kg Vespa scooter
    • 5 for a bus
    • 26 for a average american light-duty vehicle
  • Lighter designs would help, but obviously nothing could halve the ratio as easily as having two or four people in a car

Why electric cars aren`t as great as we think(yet)?

  • Around 6.75 million EVs (passenger vehicles, light trucks and light commercial vehicles) were sold around the globe in 2021 (9.5 million units are predicted to sell in 2022), which is a staggering 108 per cent increase when compared to 2020, aka The Year That We All Want To Forget Ever Happened.
  • EVs made up 8.3 per cent of total light passenger vehicles sales in 2021, which may not seem like a lot, but it’s a hefty increase from 4.2 per cent of all sales in 2020.
  • Unrealistic forecasts have been and continue to be, the norm
  • EV might cause a lot of environmental damage. If EVs are to reduce carbon emissions, their batteries must not be charged with electricity generated from the combustion of fossil fuels.
  • In 2020, just over 60% of global electricity will originate in fossil fuels; about 12 % will come from wind and solar; and rest from hydro energy and nuclear fission
  • More than 3/5 of the electricity for an EV still comes from fossil carbon
  • EV creates three times as much toxicity as that of a conventional vehicle
    • This is mostly due to the greater use of heavy metals

When did the jet age begin ?

  • The first experimental takeoff of a jet powered airplane was that of a warplane, the German Heinkel He 178, in Aug 1939
  • The first flight of the first commercial design was in July 1949
  • Soviet Tupolev Tu-104 entered domestic service in Sep 1956
  • Jet age truly began on Oct 26, 1958 when a Pan Am Boeing 707 took off from Idlewild Airport to Paris
  • The Boeing 707 inaugurated the industry’s most successful design family, one that progressed relentlessly by adding another 10 models to its varied lineup
  • Boeing 727 was the first follow-on in 1963
  • Boeing 747 was introduced in 1969
  • Boeing 787 was introduced in 2011
  • Boeing made just over 1000 707s
  • Gradual improvements in the Boeing family resulted in a vastly superior plane. In a standard two-class configuration, the first Dreamliner could seat about 100 more people than then 707, with a maximum takeoff weight nearly twice as great and a maximum range almost twice as long.

Why Kerosene is king ?

  • Eliminating kerosene-based jet fuel will be one of the greatest challenges in creating a world without carbon emissions
  • Aviation accounts for about 2% of global volume of such emissions
  • Batteries capacious enough for intercontinental flights carrying hundreds of people are still the stuff of science fiction
  • What we need is a fuel equivalent to kerosene that is derived from plant matter or organic waste
  • Annual consumption of jet fuel is about 250 million tons
  • Jet fuel consumption
  • To meet the massive demand of biojet fuel, we would have to go beyond organic wastes and tap oil-rich seasonal or perennial oil crops, whose cultivation would require large areas and create environmental problems
  • Exxon ditched a 100 million dollar project that was aimed at deriving biofuels from oil rich algae
  • Get used to the unmistakable smell of aviation kerosene- it will be here for a long time to come

How safe is flying ?

  • Average additional chance of dying while flying is 5/1000ht of the risk of simply being alive
  • Smoking risks are 100 times as high same as driving in a car
  • Annual death rate in affluent nations is about 7 to 11 per 1000 people
  • Hospitalizations remain associated with increased exposure to bacterial and viruses, elevating the risks of hospital-acquired infections, particularly among the elderly

Which is more energy efficient - planes, trains or automobiles ?

  • Intercity trains are much more energy efficient than jetliners and large SUVs
  • There is no realistic hope that the US could ever catch up with China: at 29,000 kilometers of high-speed rail that country now has the world’s longest network of rapid trains, connecting all major cities in its populous eastern half

The world without synthetic ammonia

  • Nitrogen is the most important macro nutrient in crop cultivation
  • Traditional farmers supplied the needed nitrogen in two ways
    • recycling any available organic materials
    • rotating grain or oil crops with leguminous plants
  • Need for synthetic source of nitrogen
  • In 1909, a professor of chemistry demonstrated how ammonia could be made under high pressure and high temperature in the presence of metal catalyst
  • Adoption of Haber-Bosch process slowed down in 1930s but the food needs of the growing global population ensured its massive expansion, from less than 5 million tons in 1950 to about 150 million in recent years
  • Synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers derived from Haber-Bosch ammonia currently provide roughly half of all the nitrogen required by the world’s crops, with the rest supplied by rotations with leguminous crops, organic recycling
  • Crops supply about 85% of all food protein. This means without synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, we could not secure enough food for the prevailing diets of just over 3 billion people
  • Worldwide synthesis of ammonia and subsequent production, distribution and application of solid and liquid nitrogenous fertilizers are now responsible for about 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions
  • Nitrous oxide is now the third most important greenhouse following Carbon dioxide and Methane
  • Recent global assessment concluded that the nitrogen utilization efficiency has actually declined since early 1960s to around 47% - more than half of the applied fertilizer is lost rather than incorporated into harvested crops
  • In order to cut future nitrogen losses, we should do everything to improve the efficiency of fertilization, reduce food waster and adopt moderate meat consumption

Multiplying wheat yields

  • World wide average yield in tons/hectare for wheat is 3.5 tons/hectare
  • Global wheat harvest tripled to 775 million tons
  • Average wheat yield have been leveling off in many countries

Inexcusable magnitude of global food waste

  • Annual global losses are at 40-50 percent of root crops, fruits and vegetable, 35% of fish and 30% of cereals, and 20% of oil seeds
  • Poor storage, lack of refrigeration are some of the reasons
  • In affluent regions, the problem is the difference between excessive production and actual consumption
  • Average daily food supply in the US comes to about 3600 kilo calories per person
  • Actual daily intake by US citizen is about 2100 kilo calories per day
  • Daily loss of about 1500 kcal/capita in US. 40% of American food goes to waste
    • this wasted food can feed entire Brazil
  • Obesity - BMI > 30
  • In 2010, 35% of US populaton is obese.
  • In UK, total food waste amounts to about 10 million tons a year and is worth about 15 billion pounds
  • Cutting food waste in half would lead the way to a more rational use of food worldwide
  • It is estimated that a dollar invested in food waste prevention has a 14 fold return in associated benefits

The slow addio to the Mediterranean diet

  • the key traits of Mediterranean diet are a high intake of carbs, complemented by pulses and nuts, diary products, fruits and vegetables, seafood and lightly processed seasonal foods, generally cooked with olive oil
  • the true Mediterranean diet id now eaten only in certain isolated coastal areas
  • The global reach of meaty, fatty, salty and sugary fast food is doing away not just with an ancient culinary heritage, but als with one of the few advantages the ancient world had over the modern one

Bluefin tuna: On the way to extinction

  • bluefin is Japan’s first choice for sashimi and sushi
  • \$3.1 million for a 278 kg fish caught off northern Japan
  • Japan consumes about 80% of the worldwide bluefin catch
  • The reported worldwide catch of these bluefin species is now about 75000 tons a year. That’s less than it was 20 or 40 years ago

Why chicken rules

  • For generations, beef was the US dominant meat, followed by pork
  • When annual beef consumption peaked in 1976 at about 40 kg per capital, it accounted for nearly half of all meat
  • By 2018, chicken’s share came to 36 percent
  • Average American eats 30 kg of boneless chicken every year
  • Main reason for chicken’s ascendancy has been its lower price, which reflects its metabolic advantage: no other domesticated land animal can convert feed to meat as efficiently as broilers
  • less fat content, more edible weight percentage, less feed per unit of live weight, less feed per unit of edible meat and greater feed to meet conversion efficiencies make chicken popular in supply side equation

Not drinking wine

  • Annual French per capita consumption of wine in 1850 was 121 liters a year
  • By 1909 it was 125 liters per year
  • Over the last 100 years, the french per capita wine consumption has fallen. It now stands at 40 liters per year
  • Forty years ago, more than half of French adults were drinking wine nearly every day, but the share of all adults who drink wine regularly is now just 16 %
  • Drinking wine by french people may have become an endangered habit

Rational meat-eating

  • In North America and Europe, about 60% of the total crop harvest is now destined for feeding - not directly for food
  • Japanese diet shows that there is no additional health or longevity benefit form the high consumption of meat
  • Moderate meat consumption is not associated with any adverse outcomes
  • The global output of pork, chicken and beef is about 300 million tons in 2018

Japanese Diet

  • Life expectancy of Japanese male/female is 87.5/81.3
  • Diet is the best explanation for the higher life expectancy for Japan
  • There are important differences in macronutrient composition of the average Japanese, French and American diets
  • Lower fat and Lower sugar intakes as possibly important co-determinants of longevity
  • Japanese food supply is at 2700 kcal percapita and their daily consumption is about 199 kcal percapita
  • The single most important explanation of Japan’s longevity is quite simple: moderate overall food consumption

Dairy products - the counter-trends

  • dairy strongholds have seen prolonged declines of average per capita milk consumption, while in several traditionally non-milk drinking societies, demand for liquid milk and dairy products has risen from nothing to appreciable quantities
  • Annual US consumption of fresh milk is about 66 liters in 2018
  • The key factors behind the decline have included higher consumption of meat and fish and decades of warnings about the deleterious effect of consuming saturated diary fat
  • French annual per capita milk consumption was about 100 liters in mid 1950s and by 2018, it was down to 45 liters
  • Milk per capita consumption in Japan and US have gone up in the last 60 years

Animals vs. artifacts - which are more diverse ?

  • Official count of classified species around the world is 1.25 million
    • 0.93 million are animals
    • 0.21 million are plants
    • 0.1 million are fungi and microbes
  • Amazing parallel drawn between the living species and artifacts in our world
  • In early 2019, there were some 9,500 different mobile “species”
  • World Steel Association lists about 3,500 grades of steel
  • We have surpassed nature in the range of mass

Planet of Cows

  • Bacterial account for about 90 percent of the human body’s living cells, and as much as 3 % of its total weight
  • Animal life is dominated by two vertebrates - cattle and humans
  • Global cattle count - 1.5 billion head in 2020
  • Approximate weight of cattle in 2020 - 390 million metric tons
  • Approximate weight of humans in 2020 - 600 million metric tons
  • Average weight of people in the world - 50 kg
  • Average weight of cattle in the world - 400 kg
  • By 2050 there will be 9 billion people and most likely 2 billion cattle
  • An average weight of elephant is 2800 kg

The death of elephants

  • The best available estimate of the continent’s maximum carrying capacity was about 27 million animals at the beginning of the 19th century; their actual number might have been closer to 20 million. Today they are well under a million
  • The only place where elephants are found in abundance is south of Sahara
  • Most of the blame has rested with China’s continuing demand for ivory, much of which gets turned into elaborately kitschy carvings

Why calls for the Anthropocene ear may be premature ?

  • Anthropocenes - epoch characterized by human control of the biosphere
  • We still do not control many of the fundamental variables that make life on Earth possible
  • Cenozoic (66 million years ago until today) means ‘recent life.’ During this era, plants and animals look most like those on Earth today. Periods of the Cenozoic Era are split into even smaller parts known as Epochs, so you will see even more signposts in this Era. Cenozoic signposts are colored yellow. Cenozoic (66 million years ago until today) means ‘recent life.’ During this era, plants and animals look most like those on Earth today. Periods of the Cenozoic Era are split into even smaller parts known as Epochs, so you will see even more signposts in this Era. Cenozoic signposts are colored yellow.
  • We are now less than 12,000 years into the Holocene.

Concrete facts

  • Production of modern cement began in 1824, when Joseph Aspdin patented his firing of limestone and clay at high temperatures
  • In 2018, global output of cement is 4 billion tons per year
  • China produces 2370 million tons of concrete year year
  • Concrete is not an everlasting material. It deteriorates in all climates, and the process is accelerated by factors ranging from acid deposition to vibration
  • 20th century was the era of reinforced concrete
  • Cement now accounts about 5% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels

What`s worse for the environment - your car or your phone ?

  • Typical car weights 1400 kg whereas a typical mobile phone weights 140 gms
  • In 2020, worldwide sales of cellphones is around 1.75 billion devices
  • In 2020, portable computing devices should be on the order of 250 million
  • Annual production of portable devices requires 1 exajoule of energy whereas cars require 7 exajoules of energy.
  • A mobile consumes about 4 kilowatt hours of electricity annually - 3% of its embodied energy cost

Who has better insulation ?

  • The insulating value is measured in terms of R-value
  • A framed wall from 1960 had a R value of 2.5 whereas a standard brick plastered on both sides offered no more than 1
  • Decades ago, when oil was cheap, North American houses usually had nothing more to keep out the cold than the air space between the plywood and drywall. Sometimes the space was filled with wood shavings or shredded paper. Yet, remarkably that feeble combination provided a bit more insulation than solid brick
  • insulated old brick wall will remain an order of magnitude behind the two-by-six framed North American wall

Triple-glazed windows: A see-through energy solution

  • Both in US and European Union, buildings account for 40% of total primary energy consumption. transportation comes second at 28%
  • Heating and air conditioning account for half of residential consumption
  • Single best thing we could do for the energy budget is to keep the heat in with better insulation
  • The most rewarding place to have better insulation is windows
  • A single pane has a heat transfer coefficient of 5.7-6 watts per square meter per degree of kelvin
    • A double pane has a coefficient of 3.3
    • A triple pane has a coefficient of 0.6 to 0.7
  • There is a chance of reducing 90% of energy lost by having better insulation on windows
  • Physics is indisputable, but economics rules. Although triple-glazed windows may cost just 15% more than double panes, their payback times are obviously longer, and it is commonly claimed that the step from double to triple is not justified. That may be so if you ignore improved comfort and reduced window condensation - and, above all, the fact that triple panes will keep reducing energy use for decades to come
  • What’s wrong with simple insulation ? Why, then, do visionaries want to pour money into arcane conversion technologies that may not even work, and which, even if they did, would likely have bad effects on the environment?

Improving the efficiency of household heading

  • single biggest hog in the colder parts of the world: house heating
  • About 1.2 billion people need to heat their houses
  • people rely on fossil fuels than on wood, coal and fuel oil for heating needs.
  • the best available techniques for heating are already as efficient as it is practically possible - in the high 90s
  • Future efficiency gains will have to come from
    • better insulation
    • air source heat pumps
    • solar heating

Running into carbon

  • In 1896, Svante Arrhenius of Sweden became the first scientist to quantify the effects of man-made carbon dioxide on global temperatures. He calculated that doubling the level of the gas from its concentration in his time would raise the temperature by 5 to 6 degrees centigrade
  • At the beginning of 19th century, global emissions of carbon from fossil fuel combustion was less than 10 million tons a year
  • By 1950, emissions topped 1.5 billion tons
  • By 2000, emissions reached 7 billion tons
  • To express in terms of Carbon dioxide, multiply the emissions by 3.66
  • By burning huge stocks of carbon that fossilized ages ago, human beings have pushed carbon dioxide levels not seen for about 3 million years
  • Four pillars of modern civilization - ammonia, steel, cement and plastics
  • The greatest challenge would be how to lift billions from poverty without relying on fossil carbon


Numbers need to be seen in wider contexts. An informed judging of absolute values require some relative, comparative perspectives. Rigid ranking based on minuscule differences misleads rather than informs. Rounding and approximation is superior to unwarranted and unnecessary precision. Doubt, caution and incessant questioning are in order - but so is the insistence on quantifying the complex realities of the modern world.

Have been immersed in a few areas in the last years and hence did not take an active effort to keep track of world based on numbers. There is a price to pay for being focused on one specific area. Embarrassingly a year ago, my numeracy skills were pathetic and since then I have taken a conscious decision of working on these skills. This book is perfect companion in my journey of becoming numerate.

By looking at 71 different aspects of the world, this book offers a nice mental model that you can apply to any specific aspect of our world. Indeed there is a wealth of factual information but the beauty of the book is that it is used to illustrate the way our world works. I am so tempted to immediately read another book by the same author that came out this year and it shows how thoroughly enjoying the book has been.